Meeting Topic: Beyond the Flatscreen: How We Hosted an International Conference in Virtual Reality
Speaker Name: Matt Klassen and Lawrence Schwedler, Co-Chairs, AVAR 2020
Meeting Location: Zoom
September's PNW Section Zoom meeting was a behind-the-curtains look at how the 2020 AES International Conference on Audio for Virtual and Augmented Reality was pivoted to an actual virtual reality conference in the wake of the pandemic. Conference Co-Chairs Matt Klassen and Lawrence Schwedler spoke in virtual reality (viewable in 2-D) about some of the trials, tribulations, and successes. About 30 persons came to the hybrid online meeting, an estimated 14 being AES members.
The meeting first gathered on Zoom for introductory remarks, then attendees were instructed to either watch and chat on a 2-D YouTube Live feed, or participate in AltspaceVR. AltspaceVR users could use either 3-D VR hardware, such as Oculus headgear, or 2-D apps in both Windows and (beta) Mac. The lecture was done in the same virtual world created for the Conference. Afterwards, attendees went back to Zoom for further discussion.
Matt and Lawrence (as their avatars) showed a virtual Powerpoint, and spoke about their initial plans for the real conference planned for August 2020. They had known about AltspaceVR, which started as a social media platform in 2015. When forced to either consider cancelling the conference, or going online, they initially had misgivings about AltspaceVR being too cartoony for a serious academic conference. However, after improvements (and being acquired by Microsoft), and most importantly, testing the 3-D audio features (distance attenuation and panning), they felt it would work. They are now convinced - such a VR meeting is so much more like our beloved real conventions in human interaction that Zoom is passé.
Of course, there were snags. Not everyone was ready for this, either as presenters or attendees. Slides and videos for presentations were a problem. Attendee's different audio hardware could cause problems. Prep time for presenters was intense. Altspace's Front Row feature had bugs trying to handle the number of people. Some quick thinking and workarounds were needed. Some advantages of VR meetings in education were also discussed.
One of the most delightful aspects was the free time in the lobby, a virtual recreation of the original venue's (DigiPen Institute of Technology, Redmond WA) lobby. People felt they could have beautiful interactions with others.
In the end, they felt like they'd actually been somewhere with others, a different feeling than ordinary teleconferencing. Even physical memories seemed to be created.
Tonight's attendees finished their virtual visit by teleporting to the VR lobby after the "auditorium" presentation, for VR chatting. Then the meeting reconvened back in Zoom for continued discussion.